Why Avoiding Straws Will Not Save the World

Sustainability is a term that’s thrown around incredibly often these days, but the actual meaning can often seem a bit ambiguous. “Today, it refers to the need to develop the sustainable models necessary for both the human race and planet Earth to survive,” according to Sustainabilitydegrees.com. This may leave you asking, “What place do I have in all of this?”

You’ve seen it; the 500 word articles plastered all over the internet with titles like, “Trash Island Now the Size of Texas” or “Pacific Garbage Patch, Growing Every Day!” If you’re like me you probably think back to all the plastic straws, bags, etc. that you’ve used in your life. However the truth is; these trash islands are barely the fault of the average person when you get right down to it. According to National Geographic, only about 8% of the trash pile is actually plastics like the ones you use, the majority is actually abandoned fishing gear. Something like 46% of this mass is fishing net alone while another 20% is the result of the 2011 Japanese Tsunami. Considering this, I wouldn’t feel too guilty about that baggie you used for your lunch that one time.

Industrial waste is probably another term that confuses most of us. This is any waste created by factories, industries, mills, mining operations, etc. Industrial waste is responsible for 93.7% of all waste. Meanwhile only 1.2% is municipal waste which is comprised of not only household waste but waste from schools, businesses and other institutions. Unlike municipal waste, industrial waste is often toxic and if not handled properly can destroy the environment permanently and even mutate human genes which can cause diseases like cancer. Luckily, in this modern day there are generally safe practices for disposing of this waste. However, even with safe practices, 7.6 billion tons of waste is still being produced each year in these industries and as that number grows not only is it hard to track but it limits resources even more, furthering the issues we are having far more than your use of paper napkins.

This doesn’t mean that we should completely cave when it comes to effort, it just means we might be looking at it the wrong way. And while we might wish that it was this simple and something that we could change in a day, it’s not and it’s time we realize that. The way sustainability is marketed, it’s made to seem like it’s the consumer’s fault; that the straws you’re using and the toilets you’re flushing are what’s destroying the world. Truthfully it would make more sense to focus less on our individual waste and more on our waste reduction. By using straws, baggies and other disposable products we are only encouraging these companies to produce more. The consequence of this of course is more industrial waste, more by-products from the creation of these products.

So what is it you can do to actually make a difference? Scientists have long been saying that we are all going to have to substantially change the way we live our lives. As I said, it may be less about what we throw away and more about what we buy.

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